Is Half-Staff Overused?

Aug 23, 2016

A fading tradition is preserved at West Point Military Academy; a live color guard and bugler raise and lower the Stars and Stripes every day. Iowa's largest military installation plays a recording, and the flag flies day and night because it is lighted. 

Greg Hapgood is Public Affairs Officer for the Iowa National Guard. "Here at Camp Dodge we have reveille at 7 a.m. each morning and at 5 p.m. each night we have what's called retreat," says Hapgood. "So reveille is the raising of the flag. Retreat is the lowering of the flag." 

A billowing flag south of Des Moines denotes another tragedy.
Credit Rick Fredericksen / Iowa Public Radio

When soldiers face the flag and salute, often, it's at half-staff. The national symbol has become a reflection of a troubled world; fallen soldiers and police officers, terrorism and mass shootings.

From the State Capitol, to your local bank, to private residences across Iowa, the U.S. flag is being displayed at half-staff more often than any other time in history. It's also raising new questions about flag etiquette. 

A review by USA Today found that President Obama has signed a record number of proclamations to mourn tragedies at home and abroad. President Bush had the second largest number of proclamations, starting with the 9-11 attacks. Governors also have that power.  Just this month Gov. Branstad lowered the colors for the death of a West Des Moines policeman.

Bill Gartner is in charge of the crew that climbs into the attic to raise and lower the flags high atop the Iowa Capitol Building. A motor adjusts the main flag to the proper height.

Bill Gartner holds a 3' by 5' nylon flag to be flown next to the capitol dome.
Credit Rick Fredericksen / Iowa Public Radio

Gartner is a Vietnam veteran, and joins other Americans in raising a sensitive question: With half-staff being so common, is it diminishing the meaning?

"It's at half-staff so often I think it's become hazy and fuzzy why it's there, who's done what," according to Gartner. "I just think it's become meaningless because it's always at half-staff."

An Iowa native from Glidden is known as the "Flag Guru."

"Yeah, that's the key, that we've done it so often that really it's lost its meaning," says Mike Buss, at the American Legion headquarters in Indianapolis. "I wouldn't be surprised if we get a resolution from our membership to, I hate to say tighten up, but make it more important as to when the flag is at half-staff."

The principal flag pole on the west roof of the Iowa Capitol Building.
Credit Rick Fredericksen / Iowa Public Radio

No one wants to trivialize a soldier's death, but when the U.S. Flag Code was adopted in World War II, casualties did not lower the flag. Memorial Day is already set aside for those who died in military service. If a proclamation was issued for the funeral of every Iowan killed in Vietnam, the flag would have stayed at half-staff for more than two years.

Col. Hapgood at the National Guard urged moderation. "It's important that half-staffing is used judiciously so the solemnity of whatever that event is, is maintained and the respect of the nation is focused on that flag and that event or those people."

Just when to re-set the flag is also confusing. In Iowa, and even the nation's capital, the colors sometime are at half-staff when they shouldn't be. For guidance on presidential proclamations, you can sign up for email alerts on the American Legion website.